Loaves & fishes in the garden, part 2

Shiso, forget-me-nots and purple sweet potatoes

Annual forget-me-nots ( Myosotis) annual forget-me-notare a bit like rhubarb. They stand out as the first of their kind, overshadowed by later beauties or in the case of rhubarb,  delicacies. Although sporting bright little blue flowers, they were weeds in my hoop house (greenhouse). Then a chance conversation I overheard alerted me to some people’s love for the little blue flower. So, rather than toss the weeds on the compost pile, I potted them. Since weeds come up early in the hoop house so my “flowers” were available before they started blooming elsewhere. We sold 4” to 8” pots filled with annual forget-me-nots for $0.75 to $2. at the local gift & thrift store. ( Gift & Thrift )

Perennial forget-me-nots (Brunnera) have several leaf types and much more vivid flowers than the annual. About 10 years ago I saw a 3-gallon pot at a garden store at a price I thought would shock my gardening partner. Soon after Julia was touring neighborhood yard sales with my sister, Lois. One of the yard sellers had Brunnera and Julia commented on them. The neighbor said “Help yourself, they are spreading too far”. We dug out several and planted them. Since then our original site has increased from probably 3 plants to plants scattered over 2’x8’. But from that area we have transferred some to another spot where there now plants spread across a 12′ area. In addition for the last 5 or 6 years to have given away or contributed to fund raisers up to a dozen potted plants a year. That neighborly gift was multiplied greatly.

shiso with beets

Purple weeds stand out. Bringing other people’s leaves, grass and other yard wastes for my composting passion brought in weeds. A thorny version of pigweed/amaranth is one example from the last five years. One visitor that proved positive was shiso. At first we thought it was a coleus. But this plant (before “sun-loving” coleus) loved the sun. Eventually we identified the plant as the red version of shiso or Perilla. A bit of research revealed that it was a culinary herb. None of my gardening acquaintances had heard of shiso. My gardening partner insisted it was a weed. But each year a dozen or more shiso plants offered for sale at Gift & Thrift have sold quickly.

Rod called about 15 years ago and said he had a clump of ornamental grass he wanted to reduce in size. I had wanted a tall ornamental grass, so I went to help. I identified this grass as miscanthus—probably the most common type of miscanthus. Digging out the grass was a challenge. Cutting the clump of grass required jumping on the spade. First, I planted two dinner plate sized clumps in my yard.  Then I used a hacksaw to cut up the rest of the clump into small enough pieces to put into pots. The potted clumps grew nicely. Several months later the church youth fundraiser quickly sold 11 pots of the grass. Five or so years later Wayne told me he had a clump of grass he had dug out—did I want it? The clump was large enough that he had used his tractor scoop to dig it. He dumped it on my pickup. The source of his grass? The youth fund-raiser! It took an ax and the hacksaw again to reduce the clump to pot size.

img_2703.jpgThe bright yellow of daffodils have been a favorite part of my favorite season, spring.  Friends asked if we would like to renovate their daffodil bed for a share of the bulbs.  Some of the bulbs would be for us, some to be put back into the bed and some to be given to Gift and Thrift for sale.  We agreed to the project.  In doing so, we made 2 initial mistakes.  We didn’t ask how long the daffodil bed was (70 feet).  And, second, we waited until October to start digging the bulbs.  Unfortunately the bulbs had started to grow and they were not saleable.  We spent a day and a half digging and replanting bulbs.  When we were finished, the bed was twice the width it had been before.  Then!! we had eight — five gallon buckets full of bulbs left over!  More than enough to spread around our yard and we gave many away.  Some covered a bank (above), more were planted in our back yard.

Sweet potatoes, estimated by some to be among the tops in nutrition per square feet among garden fruits and vegetables, are not among my favorite vegetables.  But I persuaded  myself to start growing them when we were offered some starts by Esther Shank (compiler of Mennonite Country-Style Recipes & Country Secrets) who worked with Julia at Gift & Thrift of Harrisonburg.  Esther had enough starts from the “mother” sweet potato, so was giving “her” to me rather than “terminating her”.  (See my earlier blog on “Terminating mother”.)  This sweet potato was a split-leaf type (not heart-leaf) with pink skin and pinkish/orange flesh, not real big with moderate long vines.  Maturity was medium length, probably around 95-105 days.  Esther did not know the heirlooms origin, simply that she had gotten it from an Old Order Mennonite some years earlier (1950-1970).

Being inquisitive, I wanted to know the name of the variety.  I found that Mahon was a well-known split-leaf variety in this area.  Then I learned of Sand Hill Preservation Center.  They list many split or cut leaf varieties.  Those with similar vining, skin, flesh and maturity date characteristics numbered around 6.  So, I am still not sure what variety I have.

I gave the mother the first year I had starts to Brian across the street.  He started keeping a root for a starter.  One year my starter/mother didn’t produce good shoots and I was without sweet potato slips.  But, Brian to

IMG_4519
The gardener with purple and Shank sweet potatoes

the rescue.  He had plenty to share with me.  Later I had plenty of slips and Brian ask me if I had to share.  He told me that the garden at Eastern Mennonite University wanted sweet potato starts.   I passed on the “mother” and some starts I had potted.  Esther Shank’s heirloom had blessed another generation.

Four years ago Roger handed me two purple sweet potatoes.  Eat one, he said, and then if you like it, start some next spring with the other one.  He had purchased the sweet potatoes while on a trip to  South Carolina.  The purple sweet (I wasn’t given a name) had dry flesh, but the bright purple made it desirable on the table.  But it came with a surprise.  When Julia made muffins with it the first time, they came out a pleasant lavender color.  But she tried another recipe and the muffins turned GREEN.  As treats at Gift & Thrift they were less appealing, especially when one of the workers said “They look moldy”.  A chemist friend explained that baking soda in the second recipe resulted in the green muffins.  (Google “using baking soda to keep vegetables green’.)  As you see in the picture above, the purple sweet gets large.  The vines are very vigorous and overrun the other sweets.  So, the purple is a mixed blessing.  But Julia’s purple sweet potato pie was a delicious and colorful surprise!

A number of years ago a friend said he had some grass he wanted to reduce in size.  I had wanted a tall ornamental grass, so I went to help.  I identified this grass as miscanthus—probably the most common type of miscanthus.  Digging out the grass was a challenge. We jumped on the spade to cut a section of grass for me.  How do you cut miscanthus planted two dinner plate sized clumps which required a hacksaw to cut up the rest of the gift clump to pot.  The potted clumps started growing.  Several months later the church youth had a fundraiser to which I contributed 11 pots which sold quickly.  Five or so years later someone told me he had a clump of grass he had dug out—did I want it?  The clump was large enough that he had used his tractor scoop to dig it.  He dumped it on my pickup.  The source of his grass?  The youth fund raiser!  It took an ax and the hacksaw again to reduce the clump to pot size.

miscanthus '17 at fence

Forsythia, nandina, Oregon grape holly, kerria japonica, Lenten rose, and lilac are other plants that have multiplied for sharing with others.

“Loaves and fish” in the garden

Part one:  Canna lilies and blackberries. (These plus shiso, miscanthus and forget-me-nots brought unexpected blessings.

After moving to Virginia, I wanted small fruit in my garden. Blackberries were familiar to me—eating them at least—from boyhood on the farm. At the nursery, the plants were something under three dollars. Real estate in Virginia was nearly three times the cost of that in Michigan where we had sold our previous home. Money seemed tight in 1989. But I splurged on three plants. Over several years, by rooting plant tips, I had enough plants to fill the space allotted to blackberries.

Several years later our church started a food pantry garden. The blackberries at home continued to set new plants, so I transplanted to the new garden enough starts over several years to fill two forty foot rows. One year we picked three gallons of blackberries from the patch. I made a new friend who moved to the area who wanted blackberry starts. He dug out a half-dozen or so.

By 2002 I had moved to a new location and was having a grape arbor built. I asked the builder if he wanted some blackberry canes. I had transplanted enough to fill my new thirty-foot blackberry patch. He said someone had given him some. When he identified the donor, I realized it was the same person who had gotten starts from me a number of years earlier.

From my extravagant purchase in 1989, we have eaten nearly 25 years of black berries—some years the birds got more than we did. The food pantry clients and the workers in the food pantry garden had the joy of blackberries. Friends gave bushes to friends from the starts I had given them. The loaves and fishes had been blessed.

Canna lilies fall in the same basket. I heard that someone was setting some canna lily rhizomes at the curb. I picked up a box with maybe a dozen roots. Planted several in my small garden, the rest at the food pantry garden. After daughter-in-law Karen used the canna’s red spike in a flower arrangement, we started taking the flowers to Patchwork Pantry for clients with the gladiolus and zinnias. The spreading cannas were taking more space than we wanted to give them. The next spring, the youth pastor and his crew dug out several bushels of canna roots to take to the Gift & Thrift store. I went to the local garden store to see what they charged for canna roots, they were charging $2.25 for scrawny dried out roots. I asked about them and was told that the primary growers in New England had significant losses of their crop.  Ours sold quickly at $1.50.!

cannas-corn-e1505829159295.jpgCannas are tropical plants requiring protection or inside storage for the winter in Virginia. We have found that heaping dry leaves over the stalks (chopped down to 6″) to a depth of 20” to 30” prevents winter kill of the rhizomes. One year the cannas had spread too far, so we did not protect one patch. That winter was mild and the cannas survived. More rhizomes to sell!

We cleaned up our rhizomes and took those with several eyes to the Gift & Thrift. The ones that didn’t look good were put in the shade, watered until they sprouted. Then we potted them for sale. One of my helpers, a student formerly from the Ukraine, said they ate the rhizomes where she came from.  In my surprise, I didn’t know how to ask if that was part of the normal diet.

Another year we stored rhizomes in vermiculite for winter storage. Funds from the sale of six or so boxes of rhizomes helped fund a trip to a youth convention that summer. Last year our small patch of cannas thrived, growing to over 8’ feet. Some rhizomes were 2”x6”. The growth was so strong the roots pushed apart the boards of the garden bed (held by 3 deck screws). It was time to harvest the rhizomes. I supervised the digging of a 4’X6’ bed of cannas, we pulled many loose roots plus a dozen or more pots to take to Gift & Thrift.  This was the 20th year of cannas.  (Shiso and forget-me-not in part 2)